Media : Pirate Radio Captures Taiwanese Politics--and Culture : Several dozen stations operate despite being raided by police. They are a powerful tool for the opposition.
On the 25th floor of a new, mostly vacant high-rise overlooking Taipei, the “Three Aunts, Six Grandmothers” pirate radio talk show is on the air.
The show’s three female hosts entertain calls on any subject, as long as they concern women. A favorite topic is “how to control your husband.”
Fifteen floors below in the same building, a broadcaster for the radical anti-government pirate station People’s Voice is railing nonstop about corruption and incompetence in government contracts.
“We appeal to the lower rung of society, taxi drivers and bean curd sellers,” the People’s Voice’s Antonio Li said proudly. “We give the unspoken society a voice.”
The two stations have very different styles and political agendas. But both are illegal, part of an underground network of several dozen pirate radio stations on the island that have changed the face of society and become a principal organizing factor on the Taiwanese political scene.
The influence of another illegal station, the pirate Voice of Taiwan, is such that when officials raided it in September and arrested the owner, the result was a bloody riot in the center of Taipei.
Most of the stations began to broadcast from suburban Taipei County after Democratic Progressive Party politician Yu Ching won election as magistrate--the county’s top post--five years ago.
Yu, elected to a second term in November, made it clear he would not interfere if new stations established themselves in his territory.
In contrast to the state-controlled media, which broadcast primarily in the Mandarin dialect of northern China, most of the pirate stations broadcast in the Taiwanese dialect spoken by the majority on the island. This has made them a powerful tool for the populist Democratic Progressive Party.
On several occasions, the government headed by the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) has attempted to silence the pirate stations. Most of the stations have been raided several times by police and temporarily shut down.
“We have been raided twice, and our equipment was all confiscated,” said Wu Ching-chi, owner-manager of the pirate Greenpeace radio station, which features the all-female talk show. “We have over $30,000 in outstanding fines.”
In one raid, the police even used helicopters to surprise the illegal broadcasters. But most stations have managed to get back on the air only hours after being raided. Then they are able to organize their listeners and direct them to demonstrate against the state and its media control.
“I guarantee you that broadcasts can resume within three or four hours if they take my machines again,” bragged radio pirate Hsu Rong-chi in an interview after one of the raids. Hsu is owner-operator of the Voice of Taiwan, one of the most militant stations favored by Taipei’s politically active taxi drivers.
In September, the taxi drivers engaged in a violent protest when Hsu was arrested and sentenced to eight months in jail for “inciting illegal public gatherings.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to shut down Taiwan’s popular pirate radio stations, the government recently threw up its hands, offering licenses to those stations with the front money to pay for them. When the stations complained that the licenses were too expensive, the authorities lowered the ante.
During the recent elections, pirate radio stations in Taipei were credited with swinging the election in favor of opposition mayoral candidate Chen Shui-bian.
In desperation, a rival party created its own pirate station to fight back. “These underground radio stations were a very important factor in these elections,” said Taiwanese political pollster Ting Tin-yu.
By circumventing the official media outlets controlled by the Kuomintang, the opposition was able to build a loyal following through the airwaves.
“It is hard to tell if we could have won without the radio stations,” said opposition spokesman Chen Fang-min.
But some see the pirate radio and burgeoning pirate cable television phenomenon as a danger. “If one of these people tries to mobilize their people,” said Ting, “there could be riots in the streets.”